This week two stories captured headlines and broke hearts across the nation. A 7-month-old baby was abandoned in a New York subway station and another baby died, allegedly suffocated by his mother at just 11 months old. Though the stories had different endings, both are tragedies, and in each case, the babies were being brought up by young mothers who were in over their heads and—in acts of apparent desperation—made choices that will haunt them the rest of their lives.
My point isn’t to condone the alleged actions of these two women. But it is to raise a question: If we as a society accept that there are people who become parents every day who aren’t ready for parenthood, why don’t we provide more options to help keep their children healthy and safe?
After a spate of high-profile murders of newborns in the 1990s at the hands of teen mothers, with several hiding their pregnancies, safe-haven laws began being introduced around the nation. The laws allow for the safe abandonment of children at designated locations. The intention is for parents who feel incapable of handling the responsibility of parenthood responsibly to know that they have choices beyond hurting their children. But like most laws, they are imperfect, and I would argue that the two cases last week highlight just how flawed current safe-haven laws are.
The window of time by which a child may be abandoned under a safe-haven law varies from state to state. In Texas, where the first safe-haven law was enacted, a child up to 2 months of age can be left, but in Oklahoma the window is seven days and in Colorado it’s just three. In New York, where a mother abandoned her daughter in the subway and another is accused of suffocating her son, the window is 30 days.
I don’t have children, but every new mother I have ever spoken with has conveyed that while the love one feels for a child may be immediate, the realities of how many ways parenthood changes one’s life may not set in until later, and almost never in three days, seven days or even a month.
The first few weeks may be exhausting, physically demanding and overwhelming. But they are also filled with Facebook posts filled with oohs and aahs and cheers of “Congratulations!”
The day-to-day reality of the challenges that parenting entails—particularly if you are doing it without a partner or strong support system—may not become fully apparent until later, and those realities may take many forms. When you have to take a day off work that you cannot really afford to stay with a sick baby; or are standing at a job all day after getting virtually no sleep because a baby kept you up all night; or you find yourself sick because your baby’s sick.
These are some of the realities of parenting. But while some people may breeze through them, others will struggle, and some, unfortunately, will snap. Maybe a mother won’t actually abandon a baby or suffocate him, but she may hurt him, or herself, some other way.
I wish we lived in a country in which more people took the choice to become a parent more seriously. I wish there weren’t so many barriers to family planning accessibility. I wish it were harder to become a parent than it is to get a driver’s license, but it’s not. I wish our federal and local governments invested more in parenting classes than in incarceration. But they don’t. So until all of the above become realities in America, I hope we will expand our safe-haven laws.
I don’t like the idea of people treating children as disposable. But I like the idea of people hurting children even less. So I really hope we can encourage our elected officials to increase the time frame of safe-haven laws nationwide to 1 year of age per child, at the very least. I believe this could save lives—the lives of children and perhaps the lives of young parents who feel pushed to the brink.